During his first week at school, five-year-old Michael Komape drowned in a pit latrine in northern South Africa. That day in January 2014 will be one his father James Komape will never forget.
As he takes me back to the school in Chebeng village, where the tragedy struck, his pain is palpable. “When I arrived at the opening of the toilet hole all I could see was a small hand,” he says.
“Some people were standing looking into the hole, no-one had thought to take him out. It’s the saddest thing I’ve ever seen. “No-one should die like that.
He pauses for a moment before continuing. “He must have been trying to call for help to maybe even climb out. It’s hard to accept that my son died alone and probably afraid.”
Mr Komape struggles to make eye contact. Instead he fixes his eyes on the neat row of brick toilet stalls, which were built after his son died in the toilet of rusty corrugated iron just metres away.
The iron sheet that had served as the seat collapsed when Michael sat on it. He fell in, along with the seat and its white plastic lid, the authorities said. But this is not a one-off problem affecting one school.
While access to proper sanitation is a basic human right enshrined in South Africa’s constitution, many pupils have no choice but to use pit toilets.
How did things get so bad? Analysts say it is partly a legacy of apartheid, since under white-minority rule virtually no resources were allocated to develop schools for poor, predominately black children. Also to blame is the failure to maintain existing infrastructure, however basic.
Back at their home just outside Polokwane, the main city in Limpopo province, the Komapes tell me they want justice for Michael’s death.
With the help of Section27, a human rights law firm, the family are set to appeal against a recent court ruling which rejected their claim for damages over the incident.
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